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Menstrual Hygiene Key to Keeping Girls in School
" Culturally here in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as in many other parts of India, menstruation is considered dirty and impure and during periods girls are discouraged to attend school and stay a "

Asha and her friends disposing the soiled sanitary napkin in the incinerator. Improved sanitation facilities including the incinerator for safe disposal of napkins has reduced the dropout rate of girls in school.

By Sugata Roy

KRISHNAGIRI, India, 19 March 2011 – Asha, a topper in her class, would have been a school dropout, for a reason which will be surprising to most of the students in urban areas. Her continuous struggle to attend schools during her menstruation cycle almost cost her dream to complete her studies.

Culturally here in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as in many other parts of India, menstruation is considered dirty and impure and during periods girls are discouraged to attend school and stay at homes.

The unavailability of sanitary pads, inadequate sanitation and absence of separate toilet for girls in schools, compounds the problem and has a huge impact on girls school attendance and is a major reason for dropouts of grils from schools. 

“There was no privacy to change when required and I was hesitant to seek permission to go home. The agonising pain, cramps and shame almost forced me to stay away from school,” says Asha recounting her tough days.

“Over two-third girls studying in standard 8 and 9 skipped schools during their periods. This hampered their studies and eventually one-third of these girls would drop-out,” remarks George Jessunesan, headmaster of Asha’s  M.C.Palli Girls High School.

For some parents this stage also signals a sign of maturity for girls and time to get them married. “My parents wanted me to leave studies and get married,” adds Asha, now studying in standard XI. 

Interventions in the schools

Identifying sanitation and hygiene as the need of the hour, Sarva Siksha Abiyan (SSA), Government of Tamil Nadu and UNICEF initiated the Menstrual Hygiene and Management (MHM) intervention in eight high schools in Krishnagiri in 2009.

“Improve sanitation facilities along with adequate hygiene services have great impact on improving girls’ attendance,” explains Arun Dobhal, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist at UNICEF.  

The programme focussed on the capacity building of adolescent girl students like to Asha to demystify taboos surrounding menstruation, orienting them to manage the menstrual process, provide access to sanitary napkins and disposal of soiled ones.

UNICEF has developed the counselling kit and has designed low cost incinerator attached to the girls’ toilet for the disposal of soiled napkins in the schools. 

 “A counselling team consisting of two female teachers and four students reach out to girls with correct information and skills to manage their periods. The benefits of using sanitary napkins over cloth as absorbents are discussed,” informs Jessunesan.

“Through intensive one-on-one counselling process, the myths and taboos on menstruation stand dispelled.”
Sanitary napkin vending machines have been installed in schools to promote privacy and easy access. Now girls can easily access their requirement during school hours. 

“Counselling team informed us about the use of sanitary pads, which are hygienic and comfortable. I can easily access them along with my friends from the vending machine installed in our school. Its only two rupees” acknowledges Asha, now an important member of the counselling team in her school.

Improved water and sanitation facilities in school girls’ toilets including the incinerator for the safe disposal of soiled napkins have shown its impact on the school attendance.

“After the programme has been introduced in the school, the dropout and absenteeism has come down to near zero and the performance of the students have improved,” says Jessunessan.  Supporting her headmater’s claim, Asha echoes the programme has indeed saved her from discontinuing my studies.

Empowered girls carry message to households

The impact of the menstrual hygiene management programme can also be felt in the community. The girls feel empowered to carry the messages on hygiene practice into their households and community.

“We could break the culture of silence and feel free to discuss the issue with our mother, elder sisters and other girls in our community. We are able to guide girls in our community and schools in their preparation for their first menstruation cycle. We feel empowered,” expressed Ramiah, a member of the school counselling team and a friend of Asha.

Girls have managed to dispel myths and discussion on menstruation is no more a taboo, informed K.L.Selvarani, science teacher and a member of counselling team in M.C. Palli high school. “Girls are able to discuss the issue freely with their family members.”

Demanding the need for privacy for managing their periods, girls like Asha and Ramiah, could convince their parents to construct toilet at home.    

“Over thirty families have constructed toilets in their homes after persistent demand from the girls. These girls are slowly bringing a social change in their community,” confirms Selvarani.

Scaling Up

The menstrual hygiene programme has been linked with the life skills training programme in the schools with active involvement of female teachers.  To provide a caring environment for menstrual hygiene separate toilets with incinerators are being constructed in the schools. The issue needs be discussed to break the culture of silence and set aside the myths and fallacies.

The interventions in the M.C. Palli High School have demonstrated that confidence and capability to handle the menstrual process without fear and discomfiture and this empowers the adolescent girls to a significant extent, emphasizes Arun Dobal.

The model intervention in M C Palli has triggered Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, Government of Tamil Nadu to scale up of the programme in 150 high schools in Krishnagiri.   

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